Pubdate: Sun, 21 Apr 2002
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2002 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Mark Martin


Drug-Rehab Law Called Reason For 10% Decline In Past Year

Sacramento -- The number of women in California prisons has fallen 10 
percent in the past year, a decline that corrections officials attribute 
largely to the state's voter-approved drug treatment initiative.

In response, two Democratic lawmakers have proposed closing one or two of 
the four women's prisons to shrink California's budget deficit -- a move 
that would probably set up a battle with Republicans and the powerful 
prison guards' union.

"There are a lot of reasons the population is down -- crime rates have 
fallen, parole programs are working -- but we think the biggest factor with 
the women's numbers is Proposition 36," said Margot Bach, a spokeswoman for 
the California Department of Corrections.

Under the initiative, passed by voters in 2000, most people convicted of 
nonviolent drug possession since July have been diverted to treatment 
programs instead of prison. So far, monthly tallies of female inmates show 
drops of between 8 percent and 11 percent over the previous year, according 
to CDC figures. There are now fewer than 10,000 women behind bars, of whom 
more than 40 percent have drug convictions.

The number of male prisoners is dropping only by 1 percent to 2 percent. 
Men are far less likely to be convicted of solely drug-related charges; 
about 26 percent of incarcerated males are there for drug crimes.

Reformers who pushed for Proposition 36 say anecdotal reports of how 
treatment programs are working show positive signs. The state is spending 
about $120 million a year on drug treatment.

Lisa, a Petaluma woman who asked that she only be identified by her first 
name, said Proposition 36 saved her life.

Now 39, Lisa started drinking alcohol at 12 and turned to marijuana, 
cocaine and then heroin. She has been to prison three times on drug 
convictions, and was incarcerated for violating her parole last year after 
she revealed to her parole officer that she was using drugs again.

In November, the state board of prison terms released her under Proposition 
36 to attend an intense, four-month drug program.

Staying Clean

"I didn't know how to stay clean," Lisa said. "Now I've got a lot of tools 
to use to stay clean. I don't have the drug obsession anymore."

Criminal experts say it will take several years to determine how much 
impact the drug-treatment law will have on reducing prison populations. The 
state's three-strikes law and other sentencing changes for violent 
offenders mean more inmates are staying in prison longer.

State incarceration rates actually began falling in January 2000, before 
Proposition 36 made it to the ballot. The drop can mostly be attributed to 
nine years of falling crime rates, said Frank Zimring, a professor of law 
and director of the University of California at Berkeley's Earl Warren 
Legal Institute.

"Crime was down throughout the '90s, but the state toughened up sentencing 
laws, so the number of inmates grew," Zimring said. "What we're doing now 
is catching up with declining crime rates. It's like gravity setting in."

Lawmakers already have taken notice of the decreases at women's prisons.

"Maybe it's time we need to look at redesigning the prison system," said 
Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley.

Proposed Cuts

Aroner and state Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, will propose a series 
of cuts in California's prison spending, which accounts for more than 5 
percent of the state's $100 billion budget. Legislators and the governor 
are grappling with a $17 billion deficit.

Aroner said the state could save $24 million a year for each women's prison 
it closes.

"Through Proposition 36 and other polling I've seen, the public really has 
been clear that they want a change in the prison system," she said.

Aroner's proposal won't go without a fight.

Critics of the idea note that women's prisons -- as well as men's -- remain 
crowded beyond suggested capacities.

"I hope they're not taking advantage of a fiscal crisis to push their 
liberal agenda regarding public safety," said Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, R- 
Riverside. "These prisons are not empty. I'm not supportive of closing one."

Proposition 36 was in part a response to an exploding prison population in 
the 1980s and '90s caused by tougher drug sentences that were implemented 
during the crack cocaine epidemic.

The proposition's success at the ballot box has prompted drug law reform 
advocates to introduce similar initiatives in three other states and 
Washington, D.C. Voters are likely to decide on the measures in November.

"It will be a fierce fight," said Dave Fratello, political director of the 
Santa Monica-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, which is pushing the 
initiatives. "But we think the positive signs in California could help 
convince people."
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